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What Is the "Patient Experience"?

Hospitals are becoming increasingly frustrated -- and wasting money -- trying to hit the wrong target

Over the past 20 years or so, healthcare organizations have realized that providing exemplary medical care isn't enough to engage customers. From a patient's perspective, excellent medical care is the least a healthcare organization can provide. Many hospitals recognize this and have broadened their focus to encompass "the patient experience."

Patients want their money's worth. But obtaining healthcare is much more than a financial transaction.

In fact, a lot of healthcare organizations are making it their main focus. The 2009 HealthLeaders Media Patient Experience Leadership Survey -- covering more than 200 healthcare CEOs, CFOs, COOs, CNOs, directors, senior vice presidents, and other high-ranking healthcare officials -- found that 33.5% of respondents said the patient experience is their "top priority," and 54.5% said it's "among their top five priorities." And most thought it would be a priority in the future as well: 45% said it would be their top priority five years from now, and 50.5% said it would be in their top five priorities.

Based on those responses, you might think that providers could agree on what exactly makes up the patient experience. But the survey also shows that when it comes to defining the patient experience, there are widely divergent views within the healthcare industry: 34.5% agreed that the patient experience equals "patient-centered care," 29% agreed it was "an orchestrated set of activities that is meaningfully customized for each patient," and 23% said it involved "providing excellent customer service." The rest agreed that the patient experience meant "creating a healing environment," was "consistent with what's measured by HCAHPS," or was something "other" than the options provided in the survey.

You can't get there from here

Given the lack of consensus on what the patient experience is -- or what it should be -- it's no wonder that hospitals are struggling with the best way to provide it. After all, if you can't define what it is, you can't provide it -- and you certainly can't measure your success in delivering it.

Nevertheless, hospitals have sought to brand themselves in ways that promote the elusive patient experience. A typical method is through physical grandeur, such as the trend for hospital lobbies that look like those in upscale hotels. Another common tactic is outreach programs, such as cooking classes for diabetics or lactation programs for pregnant women. Programs like these are meant to bring the hospital's brand to life while making it part of the community's daily life. And let's not forget the baseline selling point: excellent medical care.

It's meant to be a total patient experience, soup to nuts. An incoming patient is awestruck by the looks of the place, receives outstanding medical care, and leaves with a brochure for the organization's outreach programs. Voilà -- a carefully choreographed patient experience. So imagine the frustration hospital leaders feel -- having spent a fortune making sure the reception area is gorgeous, the logo is known all over town, and the clinical practice is top-notch -- when patient loyalty scores don't improve and cash flow falters.

Missing the mark

Why do these well-intentioned methods miss the mark? Patients may like spiffy lobbies and a full roster of classes. But do amenities like these create the kind of patient experiences that lead to better performance outcomes for the hospital? According to Gallup's research, they won't necessarily create a lasting emotional connection with patients. And that emotional connection -- customer engagement -- is the key to developing patient relationships that are enduring and profitable.

Hospitals track their patients' care experiences through HCAHPS. And most track patients' basic levels of satisfaction with or loyalty to their provider. But satisfied, loyal patients don't necessarily feel an emotional attachment that will draw them back to your organization the next time they need care.

Ultimately, the elements that create emotional bonds between customers and businesses are the same ones that create emotional bonds between patients and hospitals. This suggests that patients are consumers, and they know it. This is true -- up to a point. Patients exchange money for services, and they want their money's worth. But obtaining healthcare is much more than a financial transaction. It's also highly emotional. Among patients' myriad emotional needs are a crucial set that, if fulfilled, create a form of engagement that's optimal for both the patient and the healthcare organization.

Optimal experience

What all customers -- and patients -- want is the fulfillment of four psychological elements:

  • Confidence reflects the belief that patients can always trust the hospital to deliver on its promises.
  • Integrity reflects the belief that the hospital always treats patients fairly and will satisfactorily resolve any problems that might occur.
  • Pride reflects the degree to which a patient feels good about using the hospital and about how using the hospital reflects on them.
  • Passion reflects the belief that the hospital is irreplaceable and an integral part of patients' lives.

Healthcare organizations that can fulfill those four emotional needs and meet patients' basic requirements for good service and medical care -- and there are many that do -- engage their patients. They also create optimal patient experiences, ones that are deeply personally gratifying and that promote health.

Those are the kind of experiences that patients want. And engaged patients are the kind of patients that healthcare organizations want: Gallup's research shows that patient engagement consistently predicts hospital performance on an array of crucial business outcomes, including EBITA per adjusted admission and net revenue per adjusted admission.

One thing Gallup knows for certain is that engaged patients are better for hospitals, and engaged hospitals are better for patients. Engaged patients have a better experience because it is psychologically and emotionally gratifying. And engaged hospitals can count on engaged patients and a better bottom line.

Engaged healthcare is better healthcare, for everyone. And that's the best definition of the patient experience.

Jennifer Robison is a Senior Editor of the Gallup Business Journal.
Gallup http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/143258/Patient-Experience.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030